The practice of prescribing medications designed for humans to animals has grown substantially over the past decade and a half, and pharmaceutical companies have recently begun experimenting with a more direct strategy: marketing behavior-modification and “lifestyle” drugs specifically for pets. America’s animals, it seems, have very American health problems. More than 20 percent of our dogs are overweight; Pfizer’s Slentrol was approved by the F.D.A. last year as the country’s first canine anti-obesity medication. Dogs live 13 years on average, considerably longer than they did in the past; Pfizer’s Anipryl treats cognitive dysfunction so that absent-minded pets can remember the location of the supper bowl or doggy door. For lonely dogs with separation anxiety, Eli Lilly brought to market its own drug Reconcile last year. The only difference between it and Prozac is that Reconcile is chewable and tastes like beef.
On the one hand, it’s one of those bourgeois habits that’s all too easy to mock. We think we’re helping our animals – most pills are prescribed for “separation anxiety” – but we’re actually indulging in some reckless experimentation. A dog can’t tell us that he’d rather not take the little blue pill, or that he preferred his mindset before we started slipping tricyclics into his doggie bowl. It’s the kind of foolishness that makes me wish Evelyn Waugh were still around.
And yet, as a pet-owner, I completely understand the urge to do everything possible to make these animals happy. As I write this post, my African Grey parrot is standing on her perch saying “I love people!” (I’m not joking – that’s her favorite refrain.) She feels like a member of the family, so it’s easy to understand how, if my vet diagnosed her with some emotional disorder, I’d be tempted to put some Prozac in her foodbowl. (That is, if my vet recommended such a thing.)
In the end, though, I find this paragraph pretty compelling:
Pharmacological treatments, furthermore, are sometimes more for the convenience of owners than they are for the health of pets. When the dog bites, when the cat pees — “a lot of the ‘behavior problems’ we see are actually normal behaviors for the animal,” Dodman says. Cats aren’t mentally ill if they attack a new feline in the household or claw furniture to mark their domain. Food guarding and aggression toward strangers boost a dog’s survival rate in the wild but don’t cut it in the living room. And both cats and dogs demarcate territory with urine. “If a dog goes to the bathroom on a bush outside, you don’t mind as long as it’s not your bush,” Dodman says. “But when he comes back to the house and lifts his leg on your chair, it’s like, ‘Is the dog mentally sick?’ “
What do you think? Would you give your dog or cat an anti-depressant if your vet recommended it?